In your home
Hang-dry your clothes
After the fridge and the washer, the dryer uses the most energy. A clothesline in the sunshine is a zero-emission alternative (and your laundry will smell terrific). Here are some pointers to get you started. If you must use the dryer, make sure it’s full—but don’t overfill it.
Change lightbulbs to LEDs or CFLs
These bulbs use up to 85 percent less energy, last up to 25 times longer, and are cheaper to run than incandescent lights. About 2 billion sockets in the United States still have an energy-wasting bulb in them, per to the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Clean or replace HVAC filters every three months
Dirty filters on your air conditioner or heater make the systems work harder and waste energy.
Use a programmable thermostat
A smart thermostat paired with insulated window treatments can stabilize your home’s internal temperature, avoiding the hot and cold swings that waste energy.
Stop lining your trash bins with plastic
Instead, periodically wash and rinse your containers. Those plastic bags take 10 to 20 years to decompose—and damage natural ecosystems. They’re even finding plastic bags in the Mariana Trench, the world’s deepest.
Wash clothes in cold water
Around 90 percent of the energy used to wash clothes comes from heating the water; only 10 percent comes from electricity for the washing machine.
Ask your utility company about switching to renewable electricity
Here are the basics on getting your power from renewable sources. “More and more electricity companies are offering this kind of thing, but most people are either unaware, or can’t be bothered to make the switch,” says William Lynn, a clean-energy expert who’s consulted for major energy companies.
Calculate your household’s carbon footprint
The first step to reducing your carbon emissions is to understand how much you’re producing in the first place: Try the University of California at Berkeley’s CoolClimate calculator, which can also help plug you into a local group taking action.
Do a home energy audit
Contractors or utility companies can evaluate your home’s energy-efficiency, and the federal government runs home-energy audits through the Department of Energy’s Home Performance with Energy Star program. Some audit suggestions might include replacing insulation or switching out old appliances.
Plant your own vegetable garden
Whether you grow them in pots or in the ground, tomatoes, carrots, lettuce, spinach, chard, sugar snaps, radishes, and bush beans are easy to start with. To protect the soil and conserve water, use garden mulch—and avoid synthetic fertilizers and pesticides.
Less space for stuff means less stuff—and less square footage to heat and cool. If moving to an apartment is too drastic (though multi-unit buildings have the smallest environmental footprint!), try living with less. And definitely get rid of your storage unit.
Ditch your lawn
Not only do they displace native ecosystems, lawns consume nearly 3 trillion gallons of water, 200 million gallons of gas (for all that mowing), and 70 million pounds of pesticides each year, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council. A less drastic alternative is to xeriscape your yard, or fill it with native plants that require less water.
Upcycle your furniture
Keep old dressers or couches out of landfills by repainting or reupholstering them. Since it’s difficult for companies to create high-quality, affordable furniture these days, maybe buy used in the first place. After all, is buying new from budget furniture companies the right thing to do?
Keep tabs on the energy your devices are using
Unplug electronics when you’re not using them; stream movies through your smart TV, not your game console (it uses about 15 times the energy); and buy a laptop, not a desktop computer.
Watch your water use
A smart monitor like Flo by Moen can detect leaks and allows you to remotely shut off the water to your house from your smartphone. In the bathroom, install a water-saving showerhead and water-efficient toilets that let you choose whether to use a full or half flush.
Don’t build a new home; renovate an old one
Even if you gut an aging home to only the exterior walls and the interior load-bearing ones, you’re still creating less waste than with a complete teardown. On average, construction and demolition creates 136 million tons of waste annually, which is 40 percent of the solid waste dropped off at municipal dumps every year, according to the EPA.
Install solar panels
Solar energy is still the most cost-effective source of renewable energy, but you don’t have to use the bulky tack-on panels of the past. Companies like Tesla, Sistine Solar, and Forward Labs are introducing sleeker, lower-profile designs that blend into the roof of your house.
Weatherproof that window
Insulate and caulk trouble spots where heat and air can leak out, usually the attic, windows, and doors. Installing high-performance windows is another option, albeit a more costly one (though the price has gone down recently).
In the winter, turn the heat down
Aim for temperatures that are 7 to 10 degrees lower while you sleep. You’ll use 1 percent less energy for each degree per every eight hours. “In general, with temperature, [it’s] important to be conservative,” says William Lynn, a clean energy expert who’s consulted for major energy companies. “Don’t have things too hot or too cold.”
Make your own all-purpose cleanser
Reduce the environmental harm caused by the manufacture, use, and disposal of toxic chemicals by mixing your own cleanser: Combine 1/2 cup vinegar and 1/4 cup baking soda with 1/2 gallon of water.
Use washable cloths instead of paper napkins or paper towels
Buy fabric in bulk and cut a tall stack of squares to use as napkins, kitchen towels, and rags. (Better yet, recycle your old clothes for this use.) Stash the paper versions in the cupboard instead of keeping them out on the counter to avoid reaching for them as often.
If you’re set on building new, construct a passive house
The passive house movement uses airtight building designs, comprehensive insulation, and high-performance windows to achieve rigorous energy-efficiency standards in home design. The result is often very beautiful, too.
Buy furniture made with sustainably harvested wood
Trees help keep the planet cool. Prevent deforestation by purchasing goods made with wood that isn’t being depleted by overharvesting. Look for pieces certified by the Forest Stewardship Council.
In your community
Form a bike-friendly district
Creating places where cyclists get preferential treatment from local businesses provides benefits for both riders and local merchants. While you’re developing the district, your local coffee shop and even your workplace can apply to be bicycle-friendly businesses.
Plant a tree
Tree-planting cools cities two ways: by swapping hot hardscape surfaces for shaded permeable areas, and by lowering surrounding air temperatures due to water evaporation from leaves. Trees also soak up heat-trapping carbon dioxide and can filter deadly air pollution, protecting people from chronic respiratory illness.
Cut down on plastic waste
Even the tiniest piece of plastic can upend the delicate balance of an animal’s habitat. Conduct an audit to see where you’re accumulating the most single-use plastics, and work to eliminate them.
Clean up your river or other local body of water
By taking action to remove the pollution that clogs our local waterways, we can prevent more harmful effects downstream. Here’s a good guide to planning a cleanup in your community.
Start a community garden
Growing your own produce helps you eat locally, reducing food transportation costs. The American Community Gardening Association offers resources and recommendations for managing and maintaining a public patch.
Join a time bank
Swap your services for someone else’s—and make the community stronger by working together. Putting an hour of time in could be as simple as giving someone a ride to the doctor.
Advocate for bike lanes
Making biking more accessible could help cut car use, which could then reduce urban transportation emissions by 50 percent worldwide by 2050, according to a 2015 study by the University of California at Davis.
Gather data for good
Install a sensor and join a global community that’s collecting environmental data. Smaller sensors cost around $250, like the ones made by PurpleAir which are used to map air pollution near schools, parks, and highways.
Serving your neighbors is an investment in your community, whether it’s through a local homeless shelter, house-building program, or community center.
Take climate action
Events, marches, and protests are being organized every week by groups like Sunrise Movement that are making climate change a priority across America. You can find more climate events worldwide, too.
Reduce your block’s food waste
Americans throw away between 30 and 40 percent of their food, according the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and about 94 percent of that food waste ends up in landfills or combustion facilities. Set up a system with your neighbors to offer up produce about to go bad and distribute the harvest from backyard fruit trees. Or, as a fallback, launch a community composting program.
Advocate for better buildings
While the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) touches nearly every building in the country, the built environment still poses an array of difficulties for people with disabilities, who make up nearly 20 percent of the U.S. population. Find out how you can be a good ally for disability rights in your local community—more accessible buildings are easier for everyone to use.
Push your city to move to clean energy
More than 90 U.S. cities have set goals through the Sierra Club’s Ready for 100 campaign to get all of their electricity from renewable sources within 20 years. The Voices of 100% podcast series offers a good primer on how to get your own community to implement a similar commitment.
Amplify your impact
Extend your efforts to each of your communities, from your school to your workplace. Get your office to compost, lobby your building to practice energy conservation, or propose city-minded reads for your book club.
Give feedback on local projects
Rally your neighbors to provide input for important community decisions—with the aim of making the civic process more accessible, inclusive, and engaging.
Preserve the night sky
Inefficient outdoor lighting wastes energy and contributes to light pollution. Form a local dark-sky group to lobby your city for widespread changes, like shields on streetlights. If there’s an offending light near your home, request a lighting change.
Subscribe to a CSA
When you participate in community-supported agriculture, you’re essentially investing in a farm’s harvest—and you get a box of local food each week. Find one near you.
Back transit-oriented development
All cities need to focus on building larger buildings with fewer parking spaces near transit lines. It’s a sustainability two-for-one, adding denser housing near amenity-rich areas and decreasing the need for private automobile trips.
Say “Yes In My Backyard”
The pro-housing advocates known as YIMBYs support projects that deliver abundant, transit-accessible, affordable homes, which also make cities more sustainable. “Cities are a big part of the climate solution, not the problem,” says Lauren Zullo, the director of environmental impact for green building developer Jonathan Rose Companies.
Fight parking minimums
Up to 14 percent of the land in some U.S. cities is dedicated to parking motionless vehicles. That’s not just incentivizing driving; it’s also taking up precious land. Attend hearings for new developments and encourage planners to reduce or nix the construction of required parking spaces.
Organize car-free days
For decades, cities from Minneapolis to London and Bogotá to Los Angeles have closed streets for a day and encouraged residents to get around using car-free modes. Here’s a toolkit for launching your own.
Wherever you go
Pack to avoid plastic
Bring your own reusable water bottles and shopping bags, as well as soap, shampoo, and conditioner. Or seek out hotel companies, like Marriott International, which have already eliminated tiny bottles of toiletries in favor of in-shower dispensers. California is considering a ban on single-use toiletries as well.
If you’re a frequent flyer, odds are that your biggest single source of greenhouse gas emissions each year is air travel—it’s one of the fastest-growing contributors to greenhouse gas emissions. Calculate your flight’s emissions. Or, maybe, just find places to visit that are closer to home.
Take direct flights—or take the train
The more connections you make, the more fuel you use. According to a 2010 report from NASA, about 25 percent of airplane emissions come from landing and taking off. Or avoid the airport entirely. A train trip might take longer, but your journey will be more memorable.
Buy carbon offsets when you fly
The nonprofit Cool Effect offers a place to both calculate and purchase your own carbon offsets for every flight you take. There’s no fixed price on carbon, but it’s generally less than $15 a flight. To make sure your money ultimately goes to worthwhile projects, look for certifications by auditors or standards groups like the Gold Standard or Green-e.
Clean up after your sightseeing self
“People sometimes forget when they travel that it is important to behave on vacation as they would at home,” says Justin Francis, CEO of Responsible Travel, a travel booking agency that specializes in sustainable tourism. “Take your ethics with you!”
Be a better driver
If you have to drive, you can make adjustments so your car uses less energy. “Rabbit starts [i.e., flooring the engine at a green light] in a 3,600-pound car wastes fuel,” says Richard Heede, the co-founder and co-director of the Climate Accountability Institute. Also, make sure your gas cap is tight, check that your tires are properly inflated, and turn off your engine when you’re idling. Wash your car at a self-service car wash—washing it in your driveway wastes more water.
Plan mindful itineraries
Record numbers of visitors are overwhelming and even damaging historic cities and natural sites around the world. Explore less-traveled options, such as Ljubljana, Slovenia, instead of Venice, or the coast of Mozambique instead of Thailand’s beaches. If you’re visiting the most popular destinations, go out of your way to support local businesses over international chains.
Eliminate unnecessary car trips by mapping a two-mile circle around your house and walk (or bike, stroll, roll, or scoot) everywhere within it. These journeys will allow you to discover that some destinations are closer than you think—and you’ll be better connected to your community. Walkers may live longer and have lower rates of depression and better cognitive function.
Take public transportation once a week
More cars mean more pollution, more congestion, and more traffic deaths, and transportation is the fastest-growing contributor to the greenhouse gases causing climate change. Find a car-free routine, and use it to your advantage, like when you need to catch up on reading—or something else you couldn’t do while driving.
Say no to over-laundering
Request that your hotel towels and sheets not be washed after a single use. Many hotels have signs or door tags to make this obvious for the cleaning staff, but you may have to take the extra step of calling the front desk. Laundry makes up 16 percent of hotels’ water usage.
More zero-emission cars are available today than ever before. Check out The Verge’s guide to buying an electric vehicle, and don’t rule out a used EV, which might save you some cash. If you’re traveling, rent something more fuel-efficient—most major rental companies offer hybrids.
Stay in sustainable lodging
The Global Sustainable Tourism Council makes sure a hotel’s or agency’s impacts on waste, water, and energy are minimal. They also look to the businesses’ commitment to the local community and its fair employment of local people. Responsible Travel has 10 tips on how to tell if your eco lodge might just be greenwashing.
Contribute to the communities you visit
If you’re in a place that’s facing a specific issue (a water shortage, an economic hardship), consider ways you can help. So you don’t overstep, ask the ministry of tourism or your hotel or tour operator if they can suggest the best way to get involved. You can even go by city hall or the mayor’s office if you’re traveling domestically.
Run errands on an e-bike or e-scooter
A study by INRIX analyzed more than 50 million anonymous car trips, and found that 48 percent of all car trips in the most congested U.S. metro areas are less than three miles—the perfect distance for a trip on an e-bike or e-scooter.
Join your city’s bike-share program
In 2017, there were 55 systems spread across across the country, with over 42,000 bikes available in cities of all sizes. Support the movement by signing up for an annual membership.
Make transportation more accessible
Transit-dependent travelers are some of the most marginalized groups in the U.S. Support efforts that can make their journeys smoother and safer: more curb ramps, better elevator access, low-floor buses, wider railway cars, ramped taxis, car-share vehicles with booster seats, and drivers trained to recognize and prevent sexual assault and racial discrimination.
Through your lifestyle
Switch to rechargeable batteries
The average U.S. household burns through 47 batteries per year, according to the California Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery. Instead, you could buy just 12 rechargeable batteries every four years (the average life span of rechargeables).
Stop drinking bottled water
Bottling water, transporting it, and refrigerating it uses up to 2,000 times as much energy as drinking from the tap. Companies are competing for your dollars to create an eco-friendly replacement for the plastic bottle, but the best solution is the one that’s been there all along.
Disinvest from fossil fuels
Re-evaluate your investment portfolio (what funds are in your 401K?), and even move your money to a local bank or credit union, which are less likely to be investing in fossil fuels.
After all, how often do you really need a new phone? A new sofa or bed frame? Chasing trends is unsustainable—not just for your wallet, but also for the supply chains that produce our goods.
Mend or fix clothes instead of throwing them out.
The longer you can keep your favorite pair of jeans, the more you stretch their toll on the environmental and human systems that produced them. (Vintage or used clothes are a solid option, too.)
Buy solar chargers for your electronic devices
Power your Instagram habit with a little help from the sun. Try the Wirecutter-recommended BigBlue 28W USB Solar Charger to plug in on the go.
Buy new appliances with the Energy Star label
Look for the U.S. Department of Energy’s seal of approval to save big on your monthly utility bill. Many cities also offer rebates for swapping in more energy-efficient models.
Order in responsibly
Say no to plastic cutlery and chopsticks, plastic straws, and styrofoam or plastic containers with your food delivery. Better yet, walk over and pick up your order yourself.
Purchase Fair Trade products
Goods certified by Fair Trade USA come from farms that provide fair wages and safe working conditions—and don’t use child labor.
Opt to Act
From our sponsor: Join REI to be part of a nationwide cleanup—kicking off a year of action. This year, when REI closes its doors on one of the biggest retail days of the year, Black Friday, the brand will #OptOutside by having a coast-to-coast cleanup. Every day after, REI will also strive to leave the world better than they found it. Leave No Trace and United by Blue will be co-hosting these city cleanups—you can find one nearest you at REI.com/opt-outside.
Don’t use one-day shipping
Instead, order multiple things from the same place at once with no-rush shipping. Rushed packages mean more trucks clogging roads in cities—which makes more traffic, and more pollution—and at distribution centers, where they’re destroying small towns.
Buy clothes made from natural, renewable materials
Think wool, linen, silk, and cotton. Avoid plastic-based fabrics such as polyester, nylon, and spandex. Denim is also notoriously bad for the environment, though the leather issue is a bit more complex.
Cook at home
The energy it takes to process, package, and transport food to a restaurant is more than double the energy it takes to grow it. Whether you’re cooking for yourself or for friends, home-cooked food is both healthier and cheaper than eating out.
From batteries and electronics to lightbulbs and mattresses, most municipalities have programs to help you properly get rid of your stuff. Use the FDA’s guide to figure out how to properly dispose of medicines: Hormones and other chemicals can get into the water supply and affect marine life.
Eat less meat
In particular, avoid beef: Making a single quarter-pound hamburger requires over 460 gallons of water (that’s the equivalent of 30 showers). Chicken is better because it has a lower carbon footprint, and fish is by far the most planet-friendly choice—despite rampant overfishing. “Nearly half the world’s marine life has been wiped out in the past 50 years,” underscores food writer Mark Bittman in his introduction to a helpful guide on how to eat fish more responsibly.
Get your veggies from local farms
The closer your food is to you, the fewer greenhouse gas emissions get released from trucking or flying food to your city. Think twice before buying food from beyond your local region.
Embrace ugly produce
It may not be pretty, but it tastes the same—and eating it could make a major climate impact. Companies like Misfits Market, Hungry Harvest, and Imperfect Produce buy up unattractive, undersized, or surplus fruits and vegetables from farms and deliver them directly to your door.
Exchange goods with your neighbors
Sites like Freecycle bring together networks of people looking to get and give stuff for free in their communities so it doesn’t end up in landfills. Even Craigslist and your area Facebook Marketplace are good places to post and find free stuff.
Food scraps and yard waste make up about 30 percent of what we throw in the trash. Time to start collecting kitchen waste in your own DIY bin, and to turn that into nutrient-rich soil for a home garden. If you’re not that ambitious, or if you live in an apartment, see if your local farmers market collects compost and offer to bring your neighbors’ food scraps with you when you go.
Avoid purchasing plastic-wrapped disposable items
This includes vegetables, coffee pods, wipes, or even single-use razors. Globally, about a quarter of all plastic produced is packaging, but only 14 percent of this is recycled, another 14 percent is burned, and the rest ends up in landfills—where scientists aren’t sure how long it takes it to decompose.
Disposable coffee cups, greasy pizza boxes, used yogurt cups, oily takeout containers, and dirty diapers can all gum up the recycling process. About 25 percent of what ends up in recycling bins is contaminated, according to the National Waste & Recycling Association. The U.S. used to send its recycling to China, where low-paid workers would sort through it, but now the country is restricting what it takes in, and contaminated recycling may be sent to landfills instead.
Bring your own shopping bags
It’s a simple way to use less paper or (shudder) plastic. Some states have passed legislation that either bans the use of plastic bags, charges a fee for plastic bags, or, in a few cases, mandates better recycling programs for them.
Don’t get too cheesy
Some cheese has a surprisingly large carbon footprint. Cheddar and mozzarella, for example, use 10 pounds of milk to make one pound of cheese. While there’s no one rating system that can tell you if what you’re eating was made sustainably, but the Eat Well Guide lets you search for restaurants, grocers, and farms near you that support sustainable practices.
For the future
Encourage kids to pick up trash
Make cleaning up your block into a game. Invest in a $20 grabber tool and your kids may start begging you to take them on litter-collecting adventures.
Help reform school lunches
Feeding the next generation creates a vast amount of waste. Support groups like the Urban School Food Alliance, which pushes to keep 225 million single-use plastic trays out of landfills every year.
Attend town halls
Most members of Congress hold town halls a few times a year to connect with their constituents and update them on what’s happening in Washington, D.C. Subscribe to your rep’s newsletters, follow them on social media, or check their websites to find out when the next one is happening. Most town halls include a question-and-answer portion, so if you’re ready to ask something, go prepared.
Avoid bad corporations
Did you know that just 100 companies have been the source of more than 70 percent of global industrial greenhouse gas emissions since 1988? Fifty of them, unsurprisingly, are fossil fuel companies. Another list compiled by Forbes ranked 890 corporations based on seven priorities to see who was doing right by America—take special note of who ended up at the bottom of the list.
Elect candidates with good climate plans
Sixty-nine percent of voters believe the U.S. should take “aggressive” action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But how, exactly? Curbed put together this guide to the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates’ proposals. Find out where your representatives stand, too.
Curate a library for young environmentalists
Some suggestions: Winston of Churchill: One Bear’s Battle Against Global Warming, by Jean Davies Okimoto; The Tantrum that Saved the World, by Megan Herbert and Michael E. Mann; The Lonely Polar Bear, by Khoa Le; and for middle-grade kids, What is Climate Change? by Gail Herman.
Get to know the Green New Deal
Introduced in Congress in early 2019 by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Sen. Ed Markey, the Green New Deal is a federal resolution to eliminate economic reliance on fossil fuels while rebuilding a more equitable society. Learn more about what it would do, and find out if your representatives support it.
Take family trips to state or national parks
If your child is in fourth grade, they get into national parks free through the Every Kid Outdoors Program. While you’re there, kids can join the Junior Ranger program by completing a workbook with age-specific tasks and taking an oath to protect public lands. Many national parks are directly facing the realities of climate change.
Endorse the Paris agreement
While the current administration is pulling the U.S. out of the global pact to reduce emissions, We Are Still In—a group of thousands of leaders from America’s cities, states, tribes, businesses, colleges, and universities that’s been embraced by the United Nations—is continuing to support climate action that meets the commitment of the agreement. Your organization can join them.
Talk about climate change
“The most important thing any single one of us can do to fight climate change is talk about it,” says climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe, who directs the Texas Tech University Climate Science Center. Train to be a climate ambassador through former Vice President Al Gore’s Climate Reality project—or here’s a good guide for starting the conversation with a stranger.
“You can protest until the sky turns yellow or the moon turns blue, and it’s not going to change anything if you don’t vote,” said Dolores Huerta, a leader of the Chicano civil rights movement and one of the most influential labor activists of the 20th century. Making the world a more environmentally, socially, and economically sustainable place to live is in your hands—at the ballot box.
Push for elected officials to walk, bike, and use transit
How can city leaders advocate for better transit options unless they’re using those transit options themselves? Alexandra Lange, Curbed’s architecture critic, thinks constituents should ask elected officials to commit to at least one car-free day per week. “I’d suggest they start asking their local candidates: How long since you rode the bus?”
Fund renewable energy initiatives
Put your money where the emissions aren’t. The Solar Foundation, Grid Alternatives, and RE-volv are three good places to start.
Support federal transportation reform
For decades, the U.S. has funneled billions to new roads and highways, no questions asked. Congress’s new Future of Transportation Caucus wants to reprioritize funding to focus on equity, access, and sustainability, while the Bike Caucus is pushing for safer streets. Transportation for America is a great resource for tracking proposed legislation.
Run for office
Organizations like Run for Something, Victory Institute, SheShouldRun, VoteRunLead, and Higher Heights help elect people who have not traditionally held public office. These groups host in-person events, online trainings, and supportive communities for offices open at local, state, and national levels.
Improve representation in urban planning
Hiring people from diverse backgrounds—age, ability, sex, gender, and race—helps transform our built environment into a place that’s more reflective of the world we want to see.
Learn from Greta
The biggest climate movement in history began when then-15-year-old Greta Thunberg inspired young people everywhere with her solo protest outside the Swedish Parliament. Even a single voice can have an impact.